Witnesses and suspects don’t always want to give police information they may have. There are many reasons for that – more than there is space for in this one post. So, I’ll just focus on one: a witness or suspect may want to get something out of any agreement to give information. In other words, information is a commodity to be traded.
Detectives (well, at least fictional ones) make all sorts of arrangements with sources of information. Some are formal, as in cases where a suspect makes a plea bargain to give information in order to get a reduced sentence. A lot, though, are less formal (e.g. ‘You know, I’d really love a beer right about now.’) And we see them all through crime fiction.
For instance, in Agatha Christie’s Dead Man’s Folly, Hercule Poirot investigates the murder of fourteen-year-old Marlene Tucker. On the surface of it, there seems no reason for anyone to kill her, so this isn’t going to be an easy case. As a part of the investigation, Poirot visits the Tucker family, where he speaks with her parents. As he’s leaving the house, he has a conversation with Marlene’s younger sister, Marilyn. Among other things, she tells Poirot that Marlene had extra money to buy things she wanted. Here’s what happens next:
“Tell me, how did Marlene get the money to buy these things?’
Marilyn looked with close attention at a drainpipe.
‘Dunno,’ she muttered.
‘I think you do know,’ said Poirot.
Shamelessly he drew out a half-crown from his pocket and added another half-crown to it.
‘I believe,’ he said, ‘there is a new, very attractive shade of lipstick called ‘Carmine Kiss.'”
‘Sounds smashing,’ said Marilyn, her hand advanced towards the five shillings.’
With this ‘agreement’ made, Marilyn tells Poirot what she knows about Marlene’s source of money, and it helps in solving this case.
In Michael Connelly’s Echo Park, Raynard Waits is arrested for two brutal murders. There’s no question that he’s guilty, as he was caught with the grisly evidence of what he’d done. Now, he’s in prison facing execution. He offers to trade the police information on other cases in exchange for his sentence being commuted to life in prison. One of those cases is the disappearance of Marie Gesto, who walked out of a Hollywood supermarket one day, and never made it back home. LAPD detective Harry Bosch investigated the Gesto case but was never able to get the evidence he needed to go after the right suspect. He’s always felt guilty about the fact that he didn’t solve the case, so he decides to work with Waits.
In Thomas Harris’ The Silence of the Lamb, the FBI is looking for a killer they’ve nicknamed ‘Buffalo Bill,’ and they think they have a way to find him. His former psychiatrist is Dr. Hannibal Lecter, and he could provide very helpful information. But Lecter is imprisoned in the Baltimore Hospital for the Criminally Insane. And he’s there for very good reasons. FBI trainee Clarice Starling is chosen to go to the hospital and try to get Lecter to help with the investigation. She’s by no means universally accepted as the right choice, but she visits Lecter. He agrees to help the FBI, but he asks a high price. For everything he tells Starling, she must reveal a personal secret. It’s a risky psychological undertaking, and it doesn’t help matters that there’s a killer out there. But Starling goes through with the agreement. And the ‘cat and mouse’ game between her and Lecter adds to the tension in the novel.
Stieg Larsson’s The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo features journalist Mikael Blomqvist. In one plot thread, he’s been successfully sued for libel by Swedish industrialist Hans-Erik Wennerström. With his magazine, Millennium, in danger of folding, Blomqvist needs financial support. Then, he gets a very tempting offer from Henrik Vanger, who’s also been very successful. Vanger offers to give Blomqvist information that will bring down Wennerström and put Millennium back on solid financial ground. In return for that information, he wants Blomqvist to solve the forty-year-old disappearance of his grand-niece, Harriet. It’s not going to be an easy task, since so much time has passed. And several people who might know something are unwilling to talk. But Blomqvist agrees to the deal, and he and his research assistant, Lisbeth Salander, look into the case.
And then there’s Timothy Hallinan’s A Nail Through the Heart. In it, we meet Philip ‘Poke’ Rafferty, an ex-pat American who’s now living in Bangkok. He makes his living as a rough travel writer. But he’s also quite good at finding people, whether or not they want to be found. And that’s what Clarissa Ulrich hires him to do. She hasn’t heard from her Uncle Claus in several months, and she’s concerned about him. Rafferty agrees to look into the matter and starts to ask questions. The trail leads to an intimidating, enigmatic older woman named Madame Wing. She agrees to give Rafferty some of the information he needs. But this comes with a price. He must agree to do a job for her. Madame Wing claims that some valuable property has been stolen from her. She wants Rafferty to find that property, and to locate the man who stole it. Rafferty needs the information Madame Wing has, so he agrees. This adds another case to his burden, and a great deal more danger to his investigation.
Fictional detectives often need information that others might be unwilling to provide. And sometimes, they make all sorts of arrangements to get it. These are only a few examples. I know you’ll think of lots more.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Claude-Michel Schönberg and Herbert Kretzmer’s Master of the House.